By Bunny Ellerin and Nora Geiss
Last year, online and offline publications were buzzing about social media and its potential impact on various industries. More than half of interactive marketers surveyed (53 percent) in a new Forrester Research report expected social media budgets to increase as a direct result of the weakened economy.
Almost all marketers use some form of social media, including blogging, mobile marketing, search marketing, online video, widgets, game marketing, podcasting, and other forms. Marketing budgets are following the innovation trail. Social media spending in the U.S. will grow from US$ 716 million this year to more than US$ 3.1 billion in 2014, a 34 percent compound annual growth rate (CAGR). That’s a significantly higher rate of growth than the future spending on other interactive marketing channels.
Yet, despite all the investment, there is still much confusion about how to integrate new forms of communication, particularly digital and mobile, into a brand’s marketing plan. If 2008 was about creating awareness that social media exists, then 2009 should be about exploring how to meaningfully engage—and engage in a way that makes the team feel comfortable.
There still appears to be much reluctance about social media due to its potential pitfalls. So rather than suggest ideas or programs that some could perceive as too risky, we will focus on six steps you can reasonably take without putting your brand in jeopardy.
1. Start tracking your brand online.
At a minimum, all marketers should be monitoring how their brands live online. Dialogue is happening all over the Internet—on wikis, industry-specific social networks, general social networks like Facebook, blogs, videos, message boards, and product rating sites. Do you have a solid grasp of the social media landscape where your product or category is being discussed?
If you don’t, then you are missing out on a golden opportunity to listen in and learn from your customers. The findings can help marketers monitor general perceptions, provide a quick read on an unfolding situation, uncover issues that had not been considered, or even confirm primary market research. No one has time to pour over all of the sites, and some companies prohibit such visits, so it makes the most sense to select an outside service that will aggregate the information in which you are most interested. Many research companies now offer robust sentiment-tracking or blog-mining services. Work with your branding or advertising agency to help select the one that best meets your goals.
2. Establish a relationship with an opinion leader.
Today’s consumers are completely different than those of years past; they are involved, well educated, and not afraid to question their offerings. More and more, consumers are turning to the web as their first source for information. As a result, they have begun to forge relationships with one another online, discussing everything from quality of clothing to medications. This has led to the rise of a new type of expert: the opinion leader. These are non-professionals who inspire trust and act as guides for other consumers. They write blogs, voice their opinions in communities, post videos on YouTube, and create Facebook pages devoted to their cause or interest.
Opinion leaders exist for virtually every consumer market. Whether it is hotels.com reviewers, yelpers, critics on Amazon, or popular blogs like Design*Sponge and BagJunkie, these non-professionals are voicing their opinions and influencing consumers’ shopping habits. Many of these opinion leaders have already started developing relationships with brands, reviewing products, and writing about store launches on their blogs.
3. Support a social network in your category.
Over the past few years, discussions about every brand imaginable have moved from Yahoo! Groups and listservs to full-blown social networks. As already mentioned, consumers are connecting with each other online, often disclosing personal histories and preferences. These networks exist in a number of places: large, general social networks like Facebook, Ning, and MySpace; general sites for category interests; and specialty platforms. How can you get involved? You need not start from scratch and create a new forum. Go where your audience already congregates.
A great example of a company that partnered with a thriving social network is LifeScan, a Johnson & Johnson company and manufacturer of the OneTouch glucose meter. LifeScan learned about TuDiabetes, a social network for those living with diabetes founded by Manny Hernandez in 2007, at an American Diabetes Association–sponsored expo. It developed a partnership that resulted in an entire section of the OneTouch site dedicated to sharing—the root of all social networking—which features information about TuDiabetes and its programs. According to Manny, the relationship with LifeScan has been warmly received by the TuDiabetes community and has helped the group grow.
4. Engage with consumers at one of their many online haunts.
The Internet is completely integrated into consumers’ personal and professional lives. Consumers go online during the day, between work or during work, to search for information. They also peruse favorite blogs, share information in specialized social networks, and read the online versions of preferred magazines and journals. These destinations represent prime locations where savvy marketers can disseminate compelling content that goes far beyond ad banners.
For example, on Cooliris, brands create their own “channels” that support branded content beyond advertising (Sex and the City created a channel with behind-the-scenes footage, actor interviews, and extended scenes) that also leads directly to a point of purchase. Brands have used Twitter to engage with consumers too. Whole Foods has a Twitter feed for each location, so it can share information with users on a local level.
The medical blogosphere is also blossoming in size and stature. One of the best-known bloggers is Dr. Val Jones of Getting Better with Dr. Val. She recently teamed up with other well-regarded physician and nurse bloggers to create Better Blogcast, which offers the industry a novel way to access the blogging community with complete transparency. Using an unrestricted grant model, Better Blogcast invites top bloggers to write about specific topics. The posts are shared across all participating sites through a news widget.
5. Use video to communicate and educate.
Compelling video is the next frontier. Many companies have created branded YouTube and Facebook pages. While it’s a great first step, the content they have posted is not as enticing as it could be. To effectively drive viewership, marketers need to think about the intended audience, medium, and distribution. A common mistake is to use material developed for TV or DVD and upload it to the web.
Distribution and uptake are other important issues, so it is best to work with a company that knows content and search optimization to ensure buzz and page views. When done correctly, the rewards can be dramatic. Aquafina worked with GeniusRocket to use crowd-sourced video to generate over 107,000 views in 19 days. Health Guru’s library of over 1,000 videos generated 150 million page views in 2008.
6. Go mobile.
Mobile applications that focus on brands and tools for professionals are exploding. Cell phone use and smartphone use are growing at a faster rate than Internet use. The struggling newspaper and media industries have found iPhone applications to be an effective way to capture the interest of a dwindling audience (The New York Times, Bloomberg, and NPR all have popular, free applications). Target’s free application generates gift ideas and a list of nearby Target stores that have the items in stock with a slot-machine-like application. iPhone users can even receive coupons to some of their favorite brand products directly on their phone from online coupon portal Coupons.com of Grocery iQ. The application comes preloaded with over 130,000 name-brand supermarket items. Customers just need to specify the exact size and variety of the product they’re looking for, and the product pops up right on their screen. Users can redeem coupons in three ways: by displaying them at the checkout counter, by crediting them to their supermarket loyalty account, and by printing them off in an email. A coupon on this application could, in time, go a long way in influencing consumers’ shopping habits.
Healthcare brands can use phone applications to their benefit as well. Apple’s App Store offers over 150 medical tools for physicians, many of which are free, but even more that are not. The most popular downloads provide comprehensive drug information, medical calculators, terminology, or protocols/interpretations (e.g., eye exam, ECG interpretation). Why not use some of your marketing dollars to create an application that physicians find useful and relevant? It is also a good way to engage in dialogue with customers because many physicians willingly post feedback.
Currently, there are many ways to engage in the social media universe that are no more risky than what you are doing today offline. As these six steps show, numerous opportunities exist to market your brand effectively online. So regardless of which path you choose, make 2009 the year you engage.
Bunny Ellerin is the Managing Director of Interbrand Health in New York. Bunny leads the research division and is responsible for all facets of the business including operational performance, business development, client management, and staffing. Bunny is known throughout the industry for her work founding and leading the Harvard Business School Health Industry Alumni Association.
Nora Geiss is Senior Consultant for Interbrand's Verbal Identity practice in New York. Her expertise spans naming, tagline development, naming architecture, messaging, tone of voice, brand engagement, and brand launch for B2B and B2C brands in a broad range of industries.